Fear of the unknown and uncertainty typically brings up feelings of worry and concern. For young adults who may not have experienced or been exposed to a lot of transition and adversity, the thought of entering college can be fraught with panic and intimidation. There is a plethora of changes that they’ll be experiencing, simultaneously coming to them all at once.

In a survey of 3,000 students first attending college, it was concluded that besides the typical fears that get evoked, students’ top concern was choosing the right major. Other fears include leaving home (e.g., their rooms, comfort of their family home, etc.), homesickness (parents, pets, home friends, etc.), living with roommates (e.g., sharing personal space and items, personality differences, etc.), finances (e.g., budgeting, money for recreation, etc.), academics (e.g., where and how to study, balancing academics with their social life, etc.), knowing no one, fitting in and making friends (e.g., getting a bid for a sorority/fraternity, finding a friend group, etc.), managing commitments (e.g., balancing all their commitments, managing their schedules, effectively prioritizing, etc.), and taking care of themselves/living independently (e.g., cooking, accessing supports, etc.).

As parents, it’s hard to know how to be helpful. It could induce feelings of helplessness, especially when children are distressed or when they’re not being openly expressive about how they feel and what they need.

How to Compassionately Help Your Child Transition to College

  1. Validate their concerns. They may experience their friends as being excited and anxious-free, feeling that they’re isolated with their fears. They may also feel that their concerns aren’t warranted, ones they shouldn’t have, and ones they should be able to “get over” quickly. Instead of having feelings about their feelings and reacting to them, just listen, hear, and validate. You could also ask them to expand on them, so you fully comprehend their worries and concerns.
  2. Allow them to fully be where they’re at. Every child will respond differently to the transition. Avoid judging, comparing to others, and having expectations for how they should be coping. They may also vacillate between feelings, which is also very natural and expected. Verbalize that it’s okay to feel both excited and have anticipatory anxiety at the same time and you’re open to hearing about them both.
  3. Give them concession if they’re creating space/distance or acting out. Your child may look to create distance in order to cope with their sadness and fears. Respect where they’re at in their process. Gently point out that you’re unconditionally there for them, that this is a transition and sad for you as well, and you’re accepting of them and their thoughts and feelings no matter what. Emphasize that you’re there to listen to their every concern, whenever they choose to and feel comfortable enough sharing.
  4. Help them with practical things. For example, help them with expressing their needs, budgeting, showing them around town and where essential eateries and shops are, etc. What may seem apparent may be different from what your child wants or needs. Because of the enormity of this transition, they may react differently than you would expect or how they typically act and react. Ask them directly what they could use help with, how much involvement they want you to have, and come up with a concrete plan collaboratively with them to enhance their sense of agency, independence, and confidence.
  5. Let them know that you’re unconditionally there for them. This can’t be stressed enough. Kids often feel isolated in their thoughts and feelings to avoid disappointing you, and/or being judged or criticized.
  6. Link them with resources. Be proactive at connecting to viable resources at school. Make a list of contacts by which they can access if there is a need and desire.
  7. Make a plan with them regarding their socializing. Because of the importance of being immediately proactive and engaged to secure a friend group and friendships in general, for some kids who are inhibited or socially anxious, it’s helpful to empathize and strategize. For example, you can suggest Greek life, intramural sports, clubs, university events, hanging out in common areas in the dorms and on campus, etc.
  8. Ask them how you can be helpful and what they need from you. Ask direct compassionate questions. For example, instead of asking, “What do you need from me” try asking “How can I be helpful to you now?” I often hear from students that they experience a fear of missing out (FOMO) relative to their families “going on” without them. They anxiously anticipate that they’ll be forgotten about or there will be the realization that their absence isn’t felt or doesn’t matter. In this instance, you can ask your child how and if they want to be included in family plans going on at home. Some prefer to be included, while others would rather not know because of it evoking a considerable amount of homesickness and sadness.
  9. Teach them skills that can help relax their nervous systems and build their confidence. These skills can span from mindfulness and meditative practices to journaling, breathing exercises, etc. If you’re unfamiliar with helpful practices, read and learn about them or seek out guidance from a qualified practitioner.
  10. Remind them of their strengths and resilience. Connect them to moments in their lives when they were experiencing adversity or a challenge and were effectively able to manage and cope. Point out their strengths and attributes that assist them in pushing ahead, acclimating, and connecting with personal success.

You can directly help your child transition to college through compassion attunement and communication. It can be challenging being with your child’s distress as well as managing your own emotions that are likely to be evoked based on this momentous transition. Be sure to attend to yourself as well. The sadness emanating from you and your child signifies immense love and connection. Be proud of the relationship you cultivated and continue to fortify.

For my post on a similar topic see: Give Your Child an Exit Interview Before Leaving for College: It Can Improve Your Relationship for Many Years to Come.

Here is a Body Scan Guided Meditation for Relaxation and Groundedness by me.

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Blog as published in Psychology Today.